California State Bar Issues Formal Ethics Opinion Regarding Attorney Web Sites
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The State Bar of California Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct has issued its first opinion regarding law firm websites. In Formal Opinion No. 2001-155, the committee held that a website is a "communication" and thus falls under the umbrella of rule 1-400(A) of the Rules of Professional Conduct. Additionally, it falls under the umbrella of Business and Professions Code sections 6157 to 6158.3 as an "advertisement". Since a website falls under section 6158, attorneys must be certain that their website does not contain any false, misleading, or deceptive messages.

Of special note to attorneys is the finding that a website does not constitute a “solicitation” even if it includes electronic mail capabilities allowing for direct communication to and from the attorney. The committee reasoned that e-mail on a web site is “a communication that is made available to everyone, but directed to no one in particular”. On the other hand, once an attorney responds to an identified person, that response would be a solicitation under rule 1-400(B)(2)(b) only if the person is "known to the sender to be represented by counsel in a matter which is a subject of the communication."

The committee warns attorneys that their web site might be subject to regulation by other jurisdictions or that it might be considered the unauthorized practice of law in other jurisdictions, especially if a California attorney maintains an office in another jurisdiction or is licensed in another jurisdiction. For those who do not practice in other jurisdictions, the committee suggests the following language: “1) an explanation of where the attorney is licensed to practice law, 2) a description of where the attorney maintains law offices and actually practices law, 3) an explanation of any limitation on the courts in which the attorney is willing to appear, and 4) a statement that the attorney does not seek to represent anyone based solely on a visit to the attorney's web site.” The committee advises attorneys that even this language, in some jurisdictions, still may not comply with the rules of other jurisdictions.

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